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Steven Mazie, Supreme Court correspondent for the Economist, has this article in the WaPo, noting, "when the justices disagree, they rarely split neatly along ideological lines. In fact, of the 66 cases decided in the term that ended in June, only five resulted in a razor's-edge split along the left-right fault line."

All well and good, but I was struck by this line: "Ultraconservative Justice Clarence Thomas joined the four liberals against his right-wing brethren to allow Texas to refuse to issue a license plate featuring the Confederate battle flag."

Ultraconservative?  By what standard?
I have previously noted the deficiencies of a simplistic, one-dimensional, liberal-conservative model of viewpoints.  See, e.g., this post.  Indeed, much of Mazie's article is illustrations of why such a simplistic model does not produce reliable results.  Even so, he uses the labels, so under the banner that "all models are wrong but some are useful," let me plow ahead on the assumption that we actually can plot everyone's views on a one-dimensional scale.

If we plot everyone, we will likely get some sort of bell-shaped curve with the bulk of the people somewhere near the middle and a few people out on each fringe.  (A "bimodal" distribution, a two-humped camel instead of a one-humped camel, is the basic ingredient of civil war.)  Let's say the curve is the standard "normal" bell curve, a common assumption in such modeling and often reasonably close to the truth.

What is an "ultraconservative"?  The term implies someone out on the far fringe, two or three standard deviations to the right of the median.  That would be a person whom 99% of people would regard as further right than themselves.

Does Justice Thomas fit that definition?  Certainly not -- if we use the correct reference of the distribution of views of the American people.  Conservative, yes, but no more than one standard deviation to the right of the median.

Where would anyone get "ultraconservative"?  One possibility would be simple ignorance of where Justice Thomas actually stands, but I doubt a Supreme Court correspondent for a major publication would be ignorant of that.

Another common source of error is using the wrong norms.  Measured relative to the spectrum of views of American journalists or American academia, nearly any person with a healthy dose of common sense would be at least one sigma right of center, and any mainstream conservative would be at least two.

That, I suspect, is Mazie's problem.  He lives in Bizarro World and does not know where the real center is.  It is a common affliction.

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